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The power of social rewards

How the social designers of the South London Arts Lab are building a movement that shows the new way forward for creating, working, collaborating and playing

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Counter-culture. A labyrinth of different images, right?

Subterfuge. Living off the grid. Anarchic. Hippy. Beatnik. Boho. Suffragette. Slightly Che Guevara. Dangerous.

I want to talk about an experiment in counter-culture that just doesn’t get along with mainstream cultural ideas, values and norms. Its goal is to reject mainstream culture and inspire a widespread cultural overhaul.

And, perhaps accidentally, it has prototyped a micro-economy based on social rewards.

A SLAB is born

The South London Arts Lab (or SLAB because acronyms are sooooo well loved) emerged towards the end of 2018. I looked back at the notes from one of the first, more “official” meetings when nascent ideas started to emerge of who and what we were.

Looking back at these notes, we’ve stayed true to our original purpose (although we eventually put our manifesto in fancier language). But most importantly, our values have created a pretty glorious union.

It took a while to get to a stage where we could start to deliver on our purpose. We orchestrated one physical event outside the Tate Britain, then boosh. Lockdown.

Like so many others, we had to re-calibrate our plans.

We took our idea for a SLAB festival and, with lots of wings and prayers, created, curated and delivered a 16-hour virtual, streamed marathon of yoga, salons, talks, laughs, stories and DJ sets.

Who were we to do something so audacious?!

Lockdowns, bad news stories and anxieties were lost for that time. A release from the reality of the shit going on in the outside world.

In their places were smiles, costumes, dancing, curiosity, exploration, laughs, new and old friendships forged and re-kindled and an insane amount of gratitude.

We were floored at the response.

With the demand so apparent, that we repeated it in June.

And that proved that our work wasn’t a fluke.

From strength to strength

OK, but what’s the big deal with a bunch of people getting together and putting some fun stuff on?

By itself, the idea of an online festival isn’t that radical, right?

Here’s why it’s a big deal:

We created a new way of working: The Lab core team is a bunch of us who have very diverse skillsets, knowledge, interests, lifestyles and backgrounds. Values, purpose and an “eyes open, mind open” attitude were the common ground that motivated us to collaborate and share.

We didn’t have any money to do any of this – no magical sponsor or benevolent fund. We made the time to do it because we wanted to.

By using our diverse skills, know-how and relationships we were able to create new stuff for anyone that wanted to listen and take part.

The festival was free. The artists gave their time for free. We created a global network with its own economy with social connections and social rewards as its currency.

We became community organisers and social designers: Our unique skills were in having a vision, organising ourselves (mostly!) efficiently, dividing up the work and bringing together and inspiring a community of people. We had a collective sum of ZERO experience of putting online festivals together. But we designed, we curated, we chased, we herded, we thought about the UX, we designed it for the festival-goers and……

We used technology to reach thousands of people: the platforms that we use today are highly social and collaborative. They allowed us to reach people with shared interests and identities which, in turn, bred new relationships, friendships and social rewards.

And we wanted everyone to take part. So we all chatted, asked questions, listened, danced, sang. And danced. And sang. Together.

“Happy Solstice, an amazing journey, had me deeply immersed with all the energy. Thank you SLAB for making this special voyage happen. Music, Art, Contact. Great to see Raj, Alex & Simon & all the pioneers. Youth, your wonderful imagination, captivated, love the poetry & dance of the people, together we are one. Picked up my paint box inspired by Simon’s liberating spirit, so w.i.p.

South London Arts Lab Summer of Love 2020 participant

We created a new micro-economy based on social contracts: “Why would you do something for free?”…”If you spend more time doing this where you don’t get paid, how are you going to live?”

Fair questions. Money is still our main currency for paying the rent.

But, socialstructed platforms, arrangements, systems…whatever you want to call them…are evolving into micro-economies where social reward – connections, relationships, discovery, belonging, reputation, approval, recognition, new opportunities, being part of something meaningful and bigger than ourselves – is a currency that motivates us.

The future is social

Wikipedia. YouTube. Medium. Thrive Global. MOOC. MIT. Stanford. Contributions from millions of people to create a vast bank of knowledge, information and entertainment that is available to anyone. The social rewards are important to contributors to those projects and the benefits are enormous.

Tim Burgess, lead singer of The Charlatans, created #TimsTwitterListeningParty in March 2020 when the first UK Covid lockdown hit. It’s really simple but so effective. To connect music fans around the world. To allow fans to connect with their favourite artists and hear first hand insights of what went into their favourite albums. To listen to music together. To bond together. To escape together. 

The power of these moments is in the memory of them

Lemn Sissay

The power of social rewards and human connection.

Can we re-build our world’s infrastructure around this?

It’s a massive ask.

But it’s starting to happen.

I am grateful to Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future, for her inspirational vision of a reinvented world.

Check out my other Thrive post on the future world

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